Hard-coding positive language

In fact, words like “less” and “reduction” were written, or hard-coded, into H&M’s website such that its environmental scorecards could only offer a green picture of its clothing, our investigation found.

Of the 600 women’s clothing scorecards on H&M’s UK site last week, more than 100 of them included errors that made less sustainable clothing appear to be the opposite. The scorecards were in use on H&M’s US and European websites since May 2021, but we couldn’t determine if the errors were there all along.

Like all retail websites, H&M’s contains placeholder text in its code to accompany data about a particular product that’s usually fetched from a database. On product pages that included information about the Higg Index, the placeholders assumed only the best. This is what some of the code looked like:

breakdownLabels: { waterUse: 'less water use', co2: 'less global warming potential', chemicals: 'Chemicals', waterPollution: 'less water pollution', fossil: 'less fossil fuels use' },

Another bit of placeholder text, now deleted, read "{0} less than conventional materials." The value in braces would change based on the particular data. But there was no alternative text for the many products with more impact than conventional materials.

Scorecards for unremarkable products

The vast majority of items on H&M’s website have never included a scorecard. Those garments that did were surrounded by text about their environmental record and included on a special page featuring a women’s hand reaching into the clouds.

Screenshot of Higg Sustainability Profiles page on H&M's website
This section of the H&M site listed products with Higg Index scores.
Image: Quartz

One might assume these garments were better for the environment than typical, but simply having a Higg Index rating does not mean a garment is more sustainable. Over half of the garments with scorecards in our analysis showed no improvement from the Higg Index’s baseline, making them hardly different than the 9,600 other women’s clothing items found on H&M’s UK site.

On the days Quartz logged the data, over 600 items of women’s clothing were listed as having Higg Sustainabililty Profiles. Most showed no improvement whatsoever.

In its statement, H&M argued that displaying a scorecard didn’t imply anything other than a commitment to environmental transparency: “We share information on individual products no matter if the score is good or bad. We do this because we believe that transparency is key to driving sustainable change across the industry, as it creates both comparability and accountability, and this will ultimately lead to positive change.”

Crackdown on greenwashing

The Higg Index has faced criticism ever since H&M and other clothing retailers launched the effort, but now regulatory scrutiny may force the companies to take a new approach. Norway’s consumer protection agency earlier this month sent a notice to H&M that called out the index: “For H&M to avoid misleading marketing, H&M should specifically assess/reassess the justification for using the Higg MSI as a communicative tool in marketing,” the agency wrote.

SAC, the industry group, announced on Monday that it was suspending use of the Higg Index in all consumer-facing contexts and initiating an independent review of the data and how it’s compiled.

“The Higg Index Customer Facing Transparency Program has temporarily been paused by the SAC and following this decision, we decided to take down the program in all markets’ online shops where it has currently been available,” H&M said in its statement to Quartz. “This is a gradual process that takes some days and we started with the UK.”

Over the past two days, Quartz observed references to the Higg Index disappearing from H&M’s websites in the US and UK.

George Harding-Rolls, a campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation and a critic of the Higg Index, said the initiative was designed to mislead people.

“The SAC has been providing green paint to paint a very very dirty industry an eco-shade for 10 years, and haven’t really shown any measurable results in that time,” he said in an interview. “Take those H&M false claims: how many of those products have been bought, or were more likely to have been bought, by somebody?”

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